|The Philadelphia Know Nothing Riot, 1848|
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Mrs. Castle & the Know-Nothings
“I know nothing.” When a member of the Native American Party was asked about this semi-secret political group that was based on American nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry, that was to be his response. “I know nothing.” New England in the 1850s was fertile ground for such a group. Too many immigrants. Too many Catholics. They infiltrated every level of government and Lowell was no exception. Members of the Know-Nothings felt it their duty to purge America of foreign, especially Catholic, influence.
Reading through the few accounts of life that exist of life in this period there is a story that keeps popping up. It tells of when the Know-Nothings were in power and made themselves known in Lowell. The year was 1854 and tensions were tight. The Know-Nothings were known to make visits to convents and demand entry to see what atrocities they could find. The Sisters of Notre Dame spent the nights in vigil waiting for the alarm to be sounded. Men spent the night in the church tower keeping their eyes on Lowell Street for the mobs to be crossing the bridge which would lead them to the church and the convent.
It was a June night when their fears became reality. According to one account that has been passed down to us, the crowd with guns and bayonets advanced upon the convent in martial order, followed by the mob yelling, shrieking and brandishing clubs and road tools.
On came the frenzied force, their shouts filling the air and penetrating the convent walls to the great terror of the sisters. The roar of the mob signified no mercy to the noble women whose lives were dedicated to mercy, and there seemed to be no hope. But in the meantime the news had reached a Catholic woman whose life was of less value lo her than her religion.
The woman in question was Mrs. Julia Castle (Cassell), wife of Henry Castles. Putting a large rock in an apron, she called upon the neighboring wives, mothers, and sisters to follow her example, and soon full fifty women were massed in front of the convent gate, led by the dauntless Mrs. Castle. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder, right in the teeth of the advancing horde, each one firmly resolved lo let the infuriated Know-Nothings trample over her body ere the gates should be forced and the sacrilege consummated.
Leading the military company was a burly policeman, whose sworn duty was to preserve peace and order. He was some thirty yards in advance of the rest, his zeal in the cause having quickened his steps. When he pompously ordered the woman to make off and clear the way, instead of being obeyed as he expected, he found himself in the grasp of a pair of stout Irish arms, and felt himself lifted bodily ore the ground. The canal was nearby, but before the approaching mob could come up he was seized by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his trousers, and was flung into the slimy depths. The crowd halted in amazement at the audacity of the thing, and then, by one of those instantaneous impulses which sometimes turn the current of events and shapes history, the mind of the mob was diverted from its infamous purpose. The sight of the half drowned wretch as he floundered and splashed in the reeking water ere he crawled up the banks, changed the yells of rage to shrieks of laughter, and gave men time to take a second thought of what they were contemplating. When old Mrs. Castle, her straggling grey locks unconfined, bade them come on and get treated to more drinks of the same tap, they turned about and slunk home. Had the convent been burned there would have been a bloody retaliation that night, and many who participated would have never seen the light of another day.
Stories tend to snowball. They grow with each telling. The above narrative was part of Mrs. Castle’s death notice when she passed away in 1887. So did it happen? There is an eyewitness who swears to her account. There are other accounts; one written by a Sister of Notre Dame, and then the actual newspaper account from the period. One can imagine Mrs. Castle telling her story year after year; her grandchildren sitting on her lap. And with each telling, the story grows.
So what’s your story?